Department of Educational Psychology


Date of this Version



In W. Woody, R. Miller, & W. Wozniak (Eds.), Psychological specialties in historical context: Enriching the classroom experience for teachers and students (pp. 232-254).


Copyright © 2016 by the authors. Used by permission.


The history of psychology is comparably brief relative to many other fields of study. Within this brief history, beginning in the late 19th century, there have been tremendous, impactful shifts and the coalescence of multiple events that have shaped the development of psychology, which has likewise impacted society. Rapid social, political, cultural, and technological changes have dramatically altered the experience of each successive generation, and the science of psychology has adapted to each change to remain relevant, effective, and innovative. The impact of these widespread changes has affected the ways in which psychologists study human behavior and practice psychotherapy. In many cases, psychology and psychologists have been the catalyst for change, discovering and dispensing evidence to support change and serving as advocates and activists for progressive social change.

Issues related to human rights and social justice have markedly influenced the evolution of psychology. Since psychology’s infancy, great strides have been made toward advancing the rights of historically marginalized groups, including women, children, people of color, people with disabilities, and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. The psychology literature both reflects and contributes to these advancements. Historically, psychological theory and research was based primarily on the study of White men (Hegarty & Buechel, 2006). However, in the last 40 years, there has been an increase in the number of psychological studies that capture the experiences of diverse groups of people (Jackson, 2006). Accordingly, psychological theory has become more representative of the U.S and other Western populations, as well as Eastern and global cultures. This movement toward a more inclusive study of human behavior is, in large part, a response to national efforts such as the Civil Rights and Gay Liberation Movements. Although psychological research remains biased toward privileged groups (Organista, Marin, & Chun, 2010), the evolution in psychology represents an important acknowledgment of the changing demographics, enhanced understanding of the impact of privilege and oppression, and the need for social justice.

In this chapter, we will review major social movements and events that shaped the landscape of psychology. We will examine how psychological fields of study, theories, and practice, as well as psychology’s governing body, the American Psychological Association (APA), have impacted and been impacted by these social movements. Of particular note, this chapter will explore the impact of various social movements on psychology within the United States (U.S.). Although these social movements have often reflected more global phenomena, the discussion will be limited to those social issues that significantly impacted psychology in the U.S. While we acknowledge the many additional global social issues that have shaped the practice of psychology over time, they are beyond the scope of this chapter.